By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
VIERA, Fla., March 19 -- Jim Bowden leaned against the batting cage Monday morning at Space Coast Stadium, and Manny Acta approached from the side. "Manny Acta!" the general manager of the Washington Nationals said, and he held out his hand to his manager. They then engaged in a quiet discussion as their players took batting practice before them. Two weeks from Opening Day, there are decisions to be made, and that pair must make them together.
"Manny Acta and I are on the exact same page," Bowden said roughly 30 minutes later. "We have great communication. We know where each other stands at all times. And as an organization, we have tremendous synergy."
Over the weekend, though, that may not have appeared to be the case. Among the players Bowden and Acta watched take batting practice were outfielders Ryan Church and Chris Snelling, a pair of left-handed hitters who sent ball after ball up into the breeze that blew out toward right field. Because Acta, the first-year manager, and Bowden, entering his third year as the GM, had publicly espoused different takes on the two players' standing in the organization, Bowden and Acta appeared at odds.
On Monday, they both said that's simply not the case.
"He knows what's going on, and I know what's going on," Acta said after a crisp, 9-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. "We're on the same page all the time. He's doing his job, and I'm doing my job."
At this point in the spring, though, those two jobs overlap a bit, because Bowden's task is to provide Acta with a roster of 25 players, and Acta's task is to take those players and manage them to as many wins as possible. That comes to a head in left field, where Acta has spent much of the offseason trying to make Church -- a 28-year-old who is looking to become a full-time major league starter for the first time in his career -- more comfortable and confident. Bowden, however, is famous for trying to spark players to perform by creating competition, and Sunday he said, "The only question is who's going to start in left field," when asked about Snelling's spring performance.
"Chris has a special bat, a chance to hit with high on-base percentage," Bowden said Monday. "He's capable of being a .300 hitter with 15 to 20 homers, and he plays the game the right way. His uniform is dirty before the national anthem starts."
The perception then quickly becomes that Bowden favors Snelling. Not so, said the GM.
"I love Ryan Church," Bowden said.
It is worth remembering that with six days remaining in spring training in 2005, Bowden handed the starting center fielder's job to Church.
"I'm a big Ryan Church fan," he said. "People seem to write that I'm not. Ask Ryan. He and I have a good relationship. I believe in him. His hand-eye coordination is as good as it gets. His depth perception is the best on the team. The potential is there."
Church, meantime, seemed a bit rattled by all the fuss Monday. He said when he arrived at spring training that despite what Acta was saying about his job security, he would treat the spring as a competition. He began tinkering with his batting stance early in the spring, closing it off a bit to help him stay back and more readily recognize breaking pitches. Instead, he said it caused him to lose some of his ability to jump on and drive fastballs, so last Thursday, he went back to a more open stance.
Now, throw in the perception of a competition with Snelling, and Church is looking for answers.
"I feel like I'm behind," he said after going 0 for 3 to drop his Grapefruit League average to .175. "I kind of put myself behind the eight-ball by closing off my stance. I feel more comfortable now, but I want results, because I'm sick of people talking like, 'He's not hitting.' I'm hitting the ball. Other people, though, they seem to get the hits, and they get to see the results. It's going to happen for me, but I want it to happen now."
Snelling, who started in center with Church in left on Monday, singled once and walked three times to raise his spring average to .310. He said the competition affected him not at all.
"From what I hear," Snelling said, "the manager's made up his mind of who he likes and who he doesn't."
Acta, though, has nothing but positive things to say about Snelling. "He has impressed everybody here," Acta said.
Which brings up another possibility: If Snelling and Church both hit, and current center fielder Nook Logan -- who had an RBI single Monday but is at .219 for the spring -- struggles offensively, could Church move to center and Snelling start in left?
"That's a Manny Acta question," Bowden said. "That's not a Jim question."
Acta said that right now, he's not considering such a move. And Bowden realizes that whatever group of players he selects -- with Acta's help -- it is the 38-year-old rookie manager who will have to deal with the day-to-day issues.
"We're trying to put the best 25 on the field right now," Bowden said, "but he's going to have to manage how they produce and the best way to win. . . . It's not a set thing where, 'Okay, we've got an $8 million player at each position, and that's who's going to play there.' "
Acta, in the quiet of his office after the win, seemed content with that task.
"Jim is not going to write down a lineup for me," he said. "I know that. We're comfortable with each other's jobs."